My great-grandfather: “morally dubious to say the least.”

You have to love it.

Yes, that’s my maternal great-grandfather, John Hampton Christison. See my posts Family stories 2 — About the Christisons; John Hampton Christison in South Africa; South African War and my family…; Scans worth preserving–5: Christisons 1–my mother’s family; and posts by my cousin Ray Hampton Christison — My Great Grandfather and the South African War; Tam o’ Shanter.

Ray is the real historian in the family. Just this last week he had the great experience of travelling to Maitland NSW – see the local paper.

The life and times of champion Maitland dancer John Hampton Christison are morally dubious to say the least.

To the public the Scotland native was a ­highly acclaimed dancer who arrived in the Hunter region in the late 1870s where he proceeded to thrill Maitland audiences with his spectacular exhibition dances and taught hundreds of locals to dance.

But the public persona of this larger-than-life character masked some secrets and puzzles, and his time in Maitland was marked by sudden disappearances, parallel careers and long absences interstate and overseas.

Next week Ray Christison will reveal his great-grandfather’s secrets during a Maitland City Library Look Who’s Talking local history event.

Titled Fancy Footwork, the presentation will tell the tale of Professor Christison’s checkered life which included bank­ruptcy, adultery, cruelty and kidnapping.

“Through researching and organising this event, a spellbinding identity in Maitland’s cultural history has been unearthed,” Maitland City Council heritage officer Clare James said.

The Hunter Folk Dancers will re-enact the 1880s John Gilles Quadrille – choreographed by Professor Christison – during the event.

John Gilles was mayor of Maitland at that time.

“Dance is literally at the heart of Maitland, with the Maitland Town Hall boasting a sprung floor, now a rare facility in Australia,” Ms James said.

“With a strong interest in dance across all age groups, we thought it was time for us to delve a little deeper into what is clearly a strong tradition in Maitland.”

Fancy Footwork will be held at Maitland Gaol on Thursday, October 10, at 6pm.

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Ray writes: The Hunter Folk Dancers performing the Quadrille de Jean Gilles written by my great grandfather.

Back around ten years ago when I first posted on the Christisons as part of a family series I was doing I was contacted by Karly Morgan, now a Facebook friend, who is descended from John’s daughter Isobel Hampton Christison (1887-1972) – whom I had met and from whom came my copy of her father’s photo above. Karly passed on some information that I now repeat:

More pieces in the puzzle, thanks to Karly Morgan, a descendant of Isobel, my grandfather Roy’s sister. One of Isobel’s daughters tells this story:

John Christison was a member of the Gordon Highlanders before he came to Australia. He paid two pound to pay his way out of the regiment and joined a ship’s crew to pay his way to Australia.

SophiaWhen Sophia (pic on the right) and John were newly married they lived at Clarence Town and owned a vineyard at Hinton (near Maitland). John taught highland dancing at night in Maitland. He also later taught in a private school. They went to Scotland when nanny was 2 years old and remained there until she was 6. John received the highest medal possible for his dancing and danced before the Queen, (Victoria). When they were coming back to Australia Sophia was on the boat with her four children when John refused to board the boat. DavidSo she sailed here on her own* and went to live with her parents, George and Mary Lillie. John Christison returned to Australia on the next available boat and kidnapped his two sons from school, in Sydney [that’s the other son, David, on the left], and took them to his parent’s house in Mittagong. The police were called and the boys were returned to their mother. John Christison remarried in Rose Bay, Sydney, and he had two children by that marriage.

A bit of a contradiction there about John’s second marriage though. In one of the memoirs my mother left to me, she adds:

[In 1906] Dad (Roy) completed his training at the age of 20 and his first school was a very small place called Spencer on the Hawkesbury River. It was 11 miles down river from Brooklyn Railway Station. In those days it was only accessible by water so Dad was met and rowed by one of the fishermen’s mother to his place of “work”. He was one of the luckier ones because he had his mother (Sophia) who at a young age had been left to shoulder the responsibility of bringing up her family alone. To do this she took in boarders and herself, a very refined lady, went out to work starting at 3 am to scrub and clean office buildings in the city. With two of her children married and the youngest daughter able to stay with her married sister it left Gran free to go with Dad to become his housekeeper. He felt he owed her his help and care now he was in a position to give it to her. I think his wages were about nine pound a month. He was able to rent a sort of cottage — slab built…

And that story will form another page later on, but you will see my grandfather had an exciting childhood.

* My mother told me that during World War II Sophia told her the whole story, very late at night, but my mother’s mind was on babies (me probably) and a husband and brothers at war, so she didn’t really listen… I do recall my mother telling me though that the real reason Sophia left so precipitously was that she had seen something quite dreadful. I have given a hint above by using the word “Byronic”. By the way, I remember Sophia, just; she died when I was nine, the same year as my sister.

See also Mainly family, a 2011 post with a very good comment thread.

Maitland Mercury 1887

If you read this post, Ray, remind me what you found about the story, repeated above and deriving ultimately from Great-Aunt Isobel, that JH was a Gordon Highlander. And do you know anything about the story that he danced before Queen Victoria?

I hope Ray’s talk finds publication in some form.

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7 thoughts on “My great-grandfather: “morally dubious to say the least.”

  1. Hi Neil, It’s great to see you posting still! I have begun the process of re-writing John’s biography (I have typed notes in hard copy from the 1980s and also have learned much more from then). I will forward it to you as soon as I have it complete. As indicated elsewhere I am suspicious about the claim that John was in the Gordon Highlanders and intend to follow this up through the regiment. When he was preparing his brief biography for a centennial publication of leading Hunter Valley figures in 1888 John stated that he went to sea after completing his education. I suspect that this is how he came to New South Wales. It would also go some way to explaining his connection with the Lillie family. George Lillie, Sophia’s father, was a seaman. The Gordon Highlanders claim seems to first appear in an obituary of John published in the Maitland Mercury after his death. There may possibly have been some connection between John and the Gordon Highlanders that occurred during his service in the Boer War. Also John did not remarry at Rose Bay as noted in your post. His second marriage was to Mary Mohr of Mittagong in 1909. The marriage was consecrated in Victoria Parade Collingwood. Interestingly on the wedding record John claimed his age to be 45 when he was in fact 51. John and Mary had three children and I was quite privileged to have very long conversations with his eldest daughter Kathleen in the years before her death. She also gave me many artefacts and documents that had belonged to John, including a rather extensive collection of photos. John left a trail of mendacities that I shared the other night and will share in the biography I am preparing. I have a claim by John that he danced before royalty – I need to check back through my sources about that. I am also unsure of the identity of the gentleman in the white hat in your post. He does not look like John to me. I’ll send you more. Fond regards, Ray

  2. Loved your great-grandfather’s photo! Dancing is terrific for every generation in every country – you can’t beat it – exercise, music, pleasant company and FUN all rolled into one.

  3. Neil, I have been trawling through my old notes and have begun writing a full biography of John Hampton Christison (currently about 5,000 words and growing). I will publish it as a small book. You asked about John dancing before Queen Victoria. John listed his major dancing awards in the 1882 Manual of Dancing & Etiquette. He stated this: “at Edzell Castle, 1873 I took first prize, a Highland dirk, at Balmoral Castle in 1875, second against thirty, most of them professional men”. Queen Victoria may or may not have been present when John danced at Balmoral Castle. Given John’s penchant for self-promotion I find it bizarre that he would not have specifically mentioned this in a work as important as his Manual of Dancing & Etiquette. I have a very vague memory of Kathleen Christison telling me that he danced there before one of the other royals, however I can’t find any notes to corroborate this.

  4. I have some more information concerning the Gordon Highlanders. I have mentioned elsewhere that this story from John’s life may have had its genesis in the Boer War. His daughter Kathleen told me years ago that John had socialised a little with the Gordon Highlanders while in South Africa and had obtained some regimental buttons from them. He brought these, some Boer shell casings and a lady’s glove back to Australia with him in 1901. I have the shell casings. Could the buttons be the birth of the Gordon Highlander legend? Perhaps they cost him two pounds! i have the shell casings by the way, and a bandolier he wore in South Africa.

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